In a packed public hearing at the Federal Election Commission’s headquarters, professors, political insiders and members of the public aired their concerns about the state of money in politics for those who oversee federal campaign finance laws. With the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC as the starting point, attendees laid out a wide range of ideas for improving disclosure and preventing political corruption.
Equally split between Democrats and Republicans and lacking decisive direction from Congress, the commissioners of the FEC are not likely to take any sweeping action on either issue in the wake of the hearing. That didn’t discourage an outpouring of interest from government reform groups and free speech organizations, well beyond the scope of developing rules to implement last year’s decision.
A recent request for comments on the FEC’s McCutcheon rule-making attracted more than 32,000 public comments, most of which supported more regulation in campaign finance.
Though the commission’s Democratic chair, Ann Ravel, initially pushed for the public forum to discuss post-McCutcheon regulations, topics ranged from the rise of undisclosed “dark money” spending in campaigns to the lack of independence between candidates and their big money backers.
While the 2014 midterm’s $5.4 billion price tag is shocking to the average voter, it may also come as a surprise that the ever-rising cost of campaigns is being driven by a relatively small number of wealthy donors; witness the planned $889 million in spending to come from the Koch brothers’ donor network in 2016.
Reformers, including Donald Simon of Democracy 21, told commissioners that super PACs have become a means for wealthy donors to give proxy support to candidates. Increasingly, candidates rely on so-called “buddy PACs” that serve only to support one candidate, but, unlike a candidate’s committee, can raise unlimited funds.
Major donors play a powerful role in campaigns, and are sought out by party officials and politicians alike.
A Sunlight Foundation analysis of campaign finance data from the 2014 cycle finds that just 288 individuals gave $100,000 or more to a political committee (though other donors spend more than that spread out across multiple PACs). Some donors, like hedge fund manager Tom Steyer or media mogul Michael Bloomberg, gave much, much more.
Those givers span both sides of the political spectrum and include corporate executives, hedge fund managers, lawyers and founders of tech startups. The vast majority of those contributions went to super PACs, which are supposed to operate independently of parties and political candidates.
In the post-McCutcheon landscape, six-figure checks are no longer the sole domain of super PACs. Large numbers of candidates and party committees can band together to form so-called McCutcheon committees and solicit checks of $100,000 or more to be distributed amongst candidates and parties.
MORE: Read all of Sunlight’s reporting on McCutcheon v. FEC.
Targeted State Victory, a joint committee that raises money for the National Republican Senatorial Committee as well as 13 state GOP committees, has already pulled in four of the new jumbo-sized hard money contributions, including $260,000 from Texas real estate investor Marcus Hile and his wife, Nancy.
Although the idea to tighten coordination restrictions — rules which govern what a federal candidate or party official can or can not do with a super PAC — came up several times in the open hearing, neither the commissioners nor the speakers appeared to be anywhere near a consensus on the issue. Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and David Price, D-N.C., introduced the Stop Super PAC-Candidate Coordination Act in January, but the bill hasn’t seen any action since then.
Brad Smith, a former FEC commissioner now at the Center for Competitive Politics, saw no need to add to the existing regulatory framework. He told attendees that there are currently more campaign regulations on the books than at any time previously, noting that the rules on disclosure alone “are longer than Plato’s Republic.”
The Commission will continue to hear public testimony Thursday.